Feeling unproductive in your workspace? Jenny Mak offers some steps that you can take to tweak the area where you spend much of your research time with more intention, so that it works for you rather than against you…
With the commitments that we have as PhD students, figuring how to set up our workspaces might be the last thing on our minds. But this one task can make a big difference to our productivity. If progress has been going slow in your research in the past few weeks, consider the possibility that your workspace isn’t working for you. If you don’t have the option of trying out a different place to work, here are some steps that helped me make small and simple tweaks to my own workspace that had significant results.
Step #1: Identify what’s bugging you through comparison
I wrote my thesis from home last year and found that I often couldn’t concentrate. It certainly didn’t help that my desk was in my bedroom, but I ultimately determined that it was the dim lighting that was affecting my focus. How did I come to this?
Well, I would think of other places that I’ve been productive in the past, such as office spaces like the Wolfson Research Exchange. I realised that these spaces were brightly lit with abundant natural light as well as white lights (instead of the yellow light from my existing lamp). Consider other spaces that you’ve worked well in, break them down to the elements that make them what they are, and compare them to your existing workspace to identify what is currently lacking. Maybe you like a minimal space but your desk has become too cluttered. Maybe you like a colourful and creative space but your working area feels sterile and uninspiring. Maybe you like a space where you have specific spots for different research materials but your current working area has no organisation to speak of, and you’re tearing your hair out trying to find that exact journal article you need. Most of us already have an instinctive sense of the kind of workspace we function best in, so take a few moments to remind yourself of what you gravitate towards.
Step #2: Do some research and get some inspiration
Once you’ve identified the main issue with your workspace, do some research for solutions. These solutions can be simple and inexpensive. I read up online about basic lighting principles and considered various options such as changing the light bulb in my existing study lamp to a daylight bulb, getting a new study lamp, as well as changing the angle of my desk (which was facing the wall, making the room feel dark). If your desk is too cluttered or disorganised, try the method proposed in Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—I’ve found it to be highly effective. If your working area feels too sterile, add some plants. Need some inspiration or motivation—print out some meaningful quotes and pin them up (check out this blog post “Motivational Quotes for the PhD Journey” for ideas). Look at Pinterest for inspiration. Be creative with your process.
Step #3: Take action and experiment
You don’t have to get it right the first time. Tweaking your workspace is a work in progress and you’ll discover what’s effective and what isn’t as you use the new solutions you’ve implemented. Not feeling the cacti you brought in to add some life to the area? Maybe succulents can do the trick instead. The family photos that you pinned on the board in front of you are too distracting? Maybe pin up more calming photos like landscapes, but keep your family photos in your desk drawer. In my case, I made two changes: I got a new lamp that had adjustable white light settings, and changed the angle of my desk to face my bedroom windows. This second change significantly improved my productivity because the natural light made my room feel much brighter, and I could see greenery that made for a more pleasant studying experience. Ultimately, you don’t need to be an expert in interior décor to make your workspace work for you. But don’t underestimate the power of such small changes to make a large difference to your research experience.
Is your current workspace helping or hindering you in your PhD work? What are some tweaks that you’ve made and have found effective? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Jenny Mak is a PhD researcher in the English and Comparative Literary Studies department at the University of Warwick. Her research looks at embodied experiences of globalisation in contemporary world literature. She has a background in creative writing, journalism, publishing, and sports training.